Recently, Charanjeet Singh Channi was appointed as first Dalit Sikh Chief Minister of Punjab in place of Captain Amrinder Singh, who belongs to upper caste Jatt Sikh community. The news not only energized Dalit community from all parts of India but it has also led to heated intellectual debate on low numbers of Dalits as Chief Ministers of different states.
Even as politicians from intermediate OBC castes like Yadavs in north, Lingayat & Vokaliggas in Karnataka, Jats in Western Uttar Pradesh, Ezhavas in Kerela, Kappu & Kammas in Telugu speaking states and Tamil OBC communities like Thevars, Goundars and Vaniyyars have occupied position of Chief Ministers many times, Dalit community unfortunately have had very few leaders from Dalit community to have ever adorned the position of Chief Minister of Indian state. Before the appointment of Charanjeet Singh Channi there have been only 7 times that a Dalit has been appointed or elected as Chief Minister of any Indian state. Damodaran Sanjivayya was the first Dalit to have been appointed as Chief Minister of any state, when Congress party in 1960 appointed him as the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. The state of Bihar has seen three Dalits as Chief Minister of the state, including Bhola Paswan Shastri of Congress, Ram Sundar Das of Janta Party and Jitan Ram Manjhi of JDU. Congress party also had appointed Susheel Kumar Shinde and Jagannath Pahadia as chief Minister of Maharashtra and Rajasthan respectively. But it was the mighty and powerful and extremely popular Kumari Mayawati Behanji of BSP, who served the longest collective tenure of 7 years as Chief Minister of UP including one in 2007, when when she was elected with full majority and served a full 5-year term.
Jammu & Kashmir is India’s Muslim majority administrative unit. While Muslims constitute over 95% of the population of Kashmir valley, they are a substantial minority in Jammu region, constituting nearly 40% of the total population of Jammu region including an overwhelming majority in Pir Panchal and near majority in Chenab valley of Jammu region. And yet interestingly, the so called “Muslim” leadership across Jammu and Kashmir valley remains suffocatingly in the hands of upper caste Kashmiri, Dogri and Pahari Muslims. The only exception is the nomadic tribal community of Gujjar & Bakarwals, which is a Scheduled Tribe community and the only Pasmanda Muslim community of J&K, which can claim some degree of political empowerment, though even that is not exactly proportional to their population in the UT of J&K.
The reason, why I wish to raise this point in context of Jammu & Kashmir is not only because of the appointment of Charanjeet Sign Channi as first Dalit Sikh Chief Minister of Punjab but also because of the growing social assertion of Pasmanda Caste Muslim community in North India, which is now challenging the dominance of upper caste Muslims in the political setup of Indian polity and demanding their fair political representation that matches their strong numerical majority of nearly 85% of the total population of Muslims of India, much more than even (estimated) 75% of Hindu Dalits, OBCs and Adivasis that form the total Hindu population of India.
To begin with, let us first understand the concept of “caste” as opposed to “class” in the context of Muslim society of Kashmir valley as well as rest of India. While theologically Islam is an egalitarian faith that teaches equality and there is no concept of “caste” in Islam, the social evil of casteism however found its way among Muslim converts of both Kashmir valley and rest of India, despite the promise of early Muslim Sufi missionaries of Islam being a casteless social way of life.
The caste system among Muslims of South Asia does not strictly adhere to Hindu Brahminical “Varna system” but instead there are hundreds of “biradaris”, which are equivalent of Hindu “jatis”. The Muslim “biradaris” in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are loosely organized under three-fold classification. At the top are, what is known as “Ashrafs” or upper caste Muslims that claim descendance from Arab and Central Asian Muslims immigrants. This category also includes Muslim converts from upper caste Hindus like Rajputs and Kshatriyas. The second category comprises of what is known as “Ajlaf” Muslims or those Muslims who have converted from occupational Shudra Hindu castes like weavers, tailors, washermen etc. These are under modern times also described as OBC under constitution of India. The last category at the bottom of the pyramid are those Muslims, who have converted from Dalit Hindus, which are categorized under “Arzal” Muslims or Scheduled Castes. Then there are Muslim tribal and nomadic communities as well, who are also placed at the bottom of this unofficial caste system among Muslims of south Asia.
The caste system among Muslims of J&K roughly follows this pattern, where Syeds and Pirs are at top, followed by occupational castes like Wani, Khandey, Lone etc. and then Shudra castes like Chopan, Hajjam, Hani etc. At the bottom lie Kashmiri Muslim Dalits called Wattals, a community of Muslims historically engaged in manual scavenging.
The Pasmanda Muslim activists of North India point to near absence of Pasmanda caste Muslims not only from Muslim social and cultural organizations like All India Muslim Personal Law Board but also from state funded minority institutions like Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Milia Islamia, both of which they point are staffed exclusively by upper caste Ashrafi Muslims from Syed, Pathan, Mughal etc. biradaris. The situation is incidentally not any different in J&K either, where nearly all Muslim religious charitable, social organizations are under the hegemoneous control of upper caste Kashmiri & Dogri/Pahari Muslims. No one in Kashmir valley can even think in their wildest imagination that a Wattal Muslim can ever be Chief Minister from Kashmir valley. Can upper caste Kashmiri Muslim ever accept a Wattal as a Chief Minister of Kashmir valley just as people of Uttar Pradesh accepted Kumari Mayawat from Dalit Chamar community as Chief Minister of UP? In Kashmir valley, the CM post has largely been occupied by Upper Caste Kashmiri Muslim convert from Kashmiri Brahmin community or have belonged to Syed Malla community. Kashmir hasn’t had any CM even from middle castes like Wani or Lone, so to think that Kashmiri Muslim society will ever elect and accept Wattal, who is a Dalit Kashmiri Muslim as chief Minister seems like an impossible dream.
Pasmanda Muslim activists additionally point at the woeful representation of Pasmanda Muslims in political set up of Indian polity, which has remained in dominating stranglehold of upper caste Ashrafi Muslims, who are not more than 15% of Indian Muslim population. In Jammu & Kashmir, there has been no member ever from Pasmanda Caste Muslim community in Lok Sabha, even though Gujjar & Bakarwal community had few representatives in the assembly or erstwhile J&K state.
Pasmanda Muslim activism has come of age in North and western India in parallel to growing Dalit and Hindu OBC social, cultural and political assertion and accordingly many Pasmanda Muslim focused social organizations have come up in different parts of India including All India Backward Muslim Morcha of Dr Ejaz Ali, All India Pasmanda Mahaz of Ali Anwar from Bihar and All India Muslim OBC Organization of Shabbir Ansari from Maharashtra. The Pasmanda movement in rest of India has taken inspiration from movement of reformation and political assertion by Dalit and OBC icons like Jyotiba Phule, Periyar, Baba Sahab Ambedkar, B.P. Mandal, Kanshi Ram, Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav.
While there is still no political organization solely driven by Pasmanda Muslim leadership in any state of India yet and most of the demand for political assertation are right now focused on giving more political representation to Pasmanda Muslim castes withing existing political party set up.
A Pasmanda Muslim focused political party may also come up in future in states like UP & Bihar, where Pasmanda Muslim activism is very high. This is bound to create a ripple effect in Jammu & Kashmir as well, even as younger generation of Pasmanda caste Kashmiri and Dogri Muslims observe growing Pasmanda Muslim movement in rest of India and are also becoming an active participant of issues pertaining to emancipation of Pasmanda Muslim community. I am sure that time is not far, when both Kashmir valley and Jammu regions will also see a parallel rise of political class from region’s vast Pasmanda caste Muslim community, especially Kashmir’s much marginalized and discriminated Wattal community.
Javed Beigh is a Senior Political Leader & General Secretary of People’s Democratic Front.